50 Years of Janus Films

Max Goldberg November 15, 2006

It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to group Janus Films with those few indispensable American institutions — New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for example — which have historically acted not just to distribute or exhibit art, but to actually represent a vision of what art is and can be. When Bryant Halliday and Cyrus Harvey founded the company 50 years ago, they parlayed their experience as film programmers (for the Brattle Theater in Cambridge and New York’s 55th Street Playhouse) into distribution. No one else was bringing international cinema to American screens, so Halliday and Harvey took it upon themselves; from the beginning, Janus was the exclusive province of film lovers, that stately coin logo being the seal of film as art. If the French New Wave’s politiques des auteurs provided the theoretical underpinning for the emerging American cinephilia of the ’60s, Janus Films was the engine. American film culture as we know it — university departments, the serious criticism found in magazines like Film Comment and increasingly on the web, the repertory programming which makes organizations like the Pacific Film Archive institutions in their own right — is unthinkable without Janus’s spark. The company is celebrating its golden anniversary with re-struck 35mm prints of a few of the masterpieces on which its unshakable reputation was built.

Since Janus is such a monolith of art cinema, it’s important to see the company’s legacy in terms of the individual, and oft idiosyncratic films it was responsible for importing. The traveling retrospective (running at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive from November 3rd through December 16th) encompasses a generous cross-section of work representative of Janus’s offerings. First and foremost, the focus was on challenging, international cinema. In step with the era’s burgeoning interest in individual filmmakers — the director as author, as artist — there are several deep auteur cuts here: Ingmar Bergman’s “Monika,” Federico Fellini’s “La Strada,” Max Ophuls’s “The Earrings of Madame de